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For Whom the Forests Turn Red?

M Suchitra

21 May 2010 - It was last year that I started thinking seriously about Bastar. From the time I met Dr. Binayak Sen at the Christian Medical College, Velloor, where he was undergoing treatment after being released from jail. Despite being weak and tired, he spoke for hours about the circumstances in which he came to be branded a Maoist, the human rights violations of the BJP-led government in Chhattisgarh, and about the fragmenting of adivasi lives. At no point did he justify the attacks of the Maoists. "The situation in Central India is explosive. “If peace efforts are delayed any further, the nation will slide into civil war," were his anguished words. He reminded me that I should be writing about the problems rather than focusing on the individual- Binayak Sen.

Things have turned out to be just as he had warned. Bastar now, is the colour of blood. A danger zone, marked in deep red on the national security map. The armed battalions of the state and the Centre are combing Dandakaranya for Maoist guerrillas as part of Operation Green Hunt. The red brigades too are hitting back. The war between the white terror and the red terror is peaking.

binayak
Binayak Sen

In the Chintalnar forests in South Bastar, 75 paramilitary fighters were massacred. It was ten days before that incident that I had set out for Bastar with Freny Manekshaw, an independent journalist like me. She is from Mumbai. We had decided to restrict our travel to the Dantewada and Bijapur districts, the two Maoist strongholds. We also decided to start our journey from Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. Thousands of adivasis who escaped with their lives from Chhattisgarh live scattered all over here. We would stay at the border town of Bhadrachalam, we planned. Meet them. Collect information. Travel to their villages through the same route they fled.

But we couldn't follow the route they came by, we soon discovered. It is a route of relentless torture, exploitation, suffering, armed resistance and exodus.

*****

Ten years ago - to be precise, before 1st November, 2000, when the state of Chhattisgarh was formed for the development of adivasis, Bastar was a part of Madhya Pradesh. In fact, Bastar had existed as a feudal kingdom even before India was formed. Like other petty kingdoms, Bastar too joined the republic after Independence. It was then the biggest district in India. A district bigger than the state of Kerala, than the country of Israel. The region was covered with thick forests. Dotted with black mountain ranges rich in iron ore. In 1998, Bastar was divided into three districts, and in 2007, they were further divided to form the present five. The Dandakaranya, which includes Bastar, is an enormous forest range that covers 90,000 sq kms spread over four states; Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh. An area where lakhs of adivasis live in thousands of villages.

The day before we started, the Maoists declared bandh in six states.

"Don't think of coming here till the bandh is over, it's dangerous. Stay back in Bhadrachalam," NRK Pillai, a senior journalist and vice-president of Chhattisgarh Working Journalists' Union had warned us on the phone from Dantewada. My acquaintance with him was limited to a few phone calls. He had promised all help.

Even though it's a banned organisation, a call for bandh by the CPI [Maoists] spells serious trouble. Later when we travelled through Bastar, we saw in many places large ditches dug across roads. Things can get difficult if one gets stranded in the middle of a forest. It was last year that the Centre banned the Maoists, branding them terrorists. The Maoists, for their part, have declared that they would overthrow the state to capture power and establish a new democracy.

It was in the beginning of the 80s that seven squads of the People's War Group (PWG) crossed the Godavari from Andhra Pradesh to reach Bastar. Though it had been over thirty years after Independence, there had been no trace of development in Bastar. The National Mineral Development Corporation [NMDC] had started mining iron ore in the region in 1968, but the lives of the adivasis had remained unchanged. No water, no electricity, no facilities for farming, no schools, no hospitals. What they had was only poverty and hunger and malaria and tuberculosis. Dr Binayak Sen had pointed out that when it comes to malnutrition, even today villages in Bastar are worse off than sub-Saharan African countries that experiences severe famines.

Most of the villagers survived by selling tamarind and tendu leaves [for making beedis] collected from the forest. They suffered constant torture in the hands of the police and forest officials. Beaten if they collected firewood. Whipped if they ploughed land. Their crops were destroyed by setting elephants on the farms. The Forest officials even sowed seeds of the weed-like babul tree to destroy the fertility of the soil. Contractors, moneylenders and landlords too exploited the tribes. The climate was perfect for the growth of extremist ideology.

The Naxalites organised the adivasis. They formed a farmer-peasant union, the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Majdoor Sangh. They raised the issues of patta for land and the right to cultivate their forest lands. They built check dams. They held public trials, and executed many of the exploiters brutally. From 1986 to 2000, the Naxalites redistributed 3,00,000 acres of land.

Tendu leaves are big business in Bastar. In season, the contractors arrive by the dozen from Andhra Pradesh. They used to pay a mere 3 paisa for every 50 leaf bundle to the adivasis. It was the constant intervention of the Naxalites that led to even a meagre hike in the price. Today it stands at a rupee per bundle. There are contractors who make as much as Rs 50 lakh average profit every season.

The Naxalites performed several roles that really belonged to the state. Successive governments in Madhya Pradesh hardly acknowledged the existence of such a district. Bastar continued to be ignored even after Chhattisgarh was formed. The illiterate adivasis were duped by bureaucrats and contractors, who pocketed the crores that were allotted for adivasi development [Even today, the literacy rate in Dantewada is just 30%. And that's just the official figure, the reality's worse.]

dandavate

As they consolidated their base through their work amongst the adivasis, the War Group had started recruiting its own army. Several adivasi youth, tired of putting up with the atrocities of forest officials and the police, volunteered for the red army. The People's Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) officially came into being the same year the state of Chhattisgarh was formed. In 2004, the People's War Group, the Maoist Communist Centre and some factions of the CPI [ML] came together to form the CPI [Maoists]. A red corridor that extends from Karnataka to West Bengal, began taking shape. A branch of it curves through parts of Bihar and UP to form a red sickle that touches Nepal. The Maoists in Dandakaranya are almost all adivasis. It is rumoured that their ranks now include those who have come from as far as Nepal and Bangladesh.

*********

The wind was ablaze in Bhadrachalam. The arid wind of Andhra. It was high noon and we were in an autorickshaw. I had covered my face with dupatta, fearing sunstroke. The auto ran sometimes through the highway and sometimes through jungle paths.

There are no statistics of the number of people who have come from Chhattisgarh to Andhra. Some have left for Orissa. The majority of refugees in Khammam district are from the Koya [Muria] community. It's difficult to communicate with them as most speak only their native Gondi. We hadn't even known such a dialect existed. We spoke Hindi, but for them it is an alien tongue. Our guide, who requested anonymity, spoke both languages, so we managed.

The colony we visited had about 100 members. Most were busy working on the chilli fields, as it was harvest time. One by one they came, learning about our arrival. A small gramsabha formed as we looked on. The men and the boys sat in the front, the girls behind them. Many women sat further away, breastfeeding their babies.

When asked why they fled their villages, the answer they gave was a brief one.

"The Judum came."

Judum is Salwa Judum, the anti-Naxal militia. For each question, a curt reply. Adivasis in general are reluctant to tell tales of woes to outsiders. When the pieces provided by many are put together, the picture that emerges is one of extreme brutality. "It was when they were fishing in the river that my brother and his three friends were shot dead by the Judum." "They came as a mob and burned our houses." "They tied us before beating us." "Five-six of them together misbehaved with the women at home." "They took all the cattle. Burned nearly a hundred homes. Shot at kids who were playing. .. They are all our own people."

"Didn't you complain?"

"To whom?" asks Madhvi Deva, who has come from the village of Singaram. "Didn't the government make them do it?"

"If we complain, they'll kill us. Or lock us up," said Muchatri of Velpocha village. "They took away several of our people and put them in jail. We don't know why they took them."

Most have fled from the grip of Salwa Judum. Our guide asked the women to "tell them what they did to you," but the women remained silent. No one said anything about attacks by Maoists, except that "they come and they go." While returning, we visited a small boarding school the refugee children went to.

It was in June 2005 that Salwa Judum, which means purification hunt, was formed in Bastar. The police and the state government try to portray it as a movement that emerged naturally from the adivasis. But that's not the truth.

It is indeed true that some adviasis in the villages had begun to resent the Naxals. The restrictions by Maoists had begun to affect the social life of the tribes. Many adivasi chieftains who were friendly with the contractors were publicly punished. The guerrilla army executed several people who they suspected of being police informers. In areas declared as guerrilla zones, the Maoists prohibited villagers from taking part in the government's employment schemes. The restrictions on tendu leaf pricing too became an issue with some villagers, though it was for the benefit of the villagers that the Moiasts had disallowed sale of the leaves at a lower price. But even when they needed money the most, desperate villagers could not sell the leaves at a lower prices. Meanwhile, rumours spread that the contractors were paying off the Maoists [Maoists had imposed a 'tax' on merchants, contractors, timber smugglers and arrack sellers].

Some adivasis in Bairamgarh in Dantewada distrcit [now in Bijapur district] started organising themselves on a small scale against the Maoists. But the man who channelled their resentment into violence was the ex-Congress MLA Mahendra Karma, who himself is an adivasi. Karma was with the CPI before joining the Congress. The CPI had organised an anti-Naxal movement called the Jan Jagran Abhiyan in the 1991-92. It ended after the Naxalites killed a dozen of the Party's leaders. The contractors and merchants backed Karma. A few former Naxals too joined them. The movement received the full support and assistance of the state government.

What followed was sheer brutality. Villagers who joined the Salwa Judum were given money and guns besides the backup of the Naga Battalion and the armed forces of the state police. Adivasis were chased out of the forests en masse, in the name of isolating Maoists. Those who came out were herded like sheep to the Salwa Judum camps. Many who refused to come out of the forests were killed. Their homes burned. Lootings and gang rapes became common. Of those who came out, some 3000 were illegally appointed Special Police Officers. They were given uniforms, guns and a monthly salary of Rs 1500. Even children below 14 years were turned into SPOs. On the cover of a 2006 report released by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, there's a picture of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh chatting with a few of these gun-toting child cops.

Predictably, the Maoists hit back. They attacked Salwa Judum camps and police stations. They detonated bombs in Salwa Judum rallies and meetings. Shot several SPOs dead. They targeted those who had left the jungles, while the Judum targeted those who had stayed. The chief minister openly declared that "those who stay in the jungles are with them, and those who come out, with the government." It was out of fear that most of them 'volunteered' to move into the camps. Salwa Judum forcibly evicted the residents of 640 villages. About 60,000 adivasis were moved into to the camps. 3,50,000 were chased out of their homes or had to flee.

The government has the exact numbers of those killed by the Maoists. But no one has the figures for those killed by the Salwa Judum. It was immediately after the People's Union of Civil Liberties [PUCL] demanded a CBI enquiry into the killings of Salwa Judum that the organisation's national vice-president Binayak Sen was arrested.

manipur

While fleeing from the clutches of Salwa Judum, members of a family didn't always make it together. Some ended up outside the forest, and some ended up in deep forests. Several of those who came out became SPOs. Those who went in, became Maoists. Reports indicate that the Maoist ranks have multiplied ever since the Salwa Judum was formed. The government forces now carry out their operations with SPOs as their frontline.

Those who kill, those who die, those who have to flee for their lives, are all adivasis.

*******

When you cross into Chhattisgarh from Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh ends at a place called Chatti. Past the police checkpost is Konda, where Dantewada district begins; a Maoist stronghold. Beyond a small market that has four or five shops in it, the forest office, the police station and a few government offices, lies the forest in all its vastness, and villages scattered through it. Konda has no hotels. We managed to get a room in the PWD rest house with the help of a few local journalists. The caretaker kept the room's key with herself. Outsiders are suspect.

Near the rest house there is a river, the Sabari. Calm waters. Sand banks. Across the river is Orissa. As I lay on the rocks by the river looking at the sky, I wondered if this really was a war zone. All of South Bastar is like this. There are no speeding armoured vehicles or rows of armed policemen on duty. All is calm on the outside. But the heartland is in turmoil.

At night, the police came to the rest house .Policemen in Bastar normally move around in mufti. Later we found out that even the police superintendent goes about in mufti. There were questions: Why did you come? Where are you headed? When will you leave? Our ID cards were examined carefully.

A local journalist had agreed to take us to see the nearby Salwa Judum camp the next morning. One requires the collector's permission to visit these camps. "That's no problem," the journalist assured us.

In the morning, we informed the police station before visiting the camp. Rows of huts, packed close together. Not many people are around. Outside the camp, a martyr's memorial for two SPOs. By the time we had started to click our cameras, the police arrived. The Town Inspector [TI] and three SPOs carrying guns. Severe expression on all faces.

spo

“You shouldn't take pictures or talk to people in camp without permission,” said the inspector.

"Okay."

"Where will you go next?"

"Dantewada."

"You can't take the direct route. Go to Vizag and take a train to Jagdalpur.From there you could go to Dantewada."

Visakhapatnam is 300 kms away. And then another 300 by train. The direct route will take only 180 kms.

"Why can't we go straight to Dantewada?"

"It's dangerous. The Maoists might attack. You are outsiders; they might force you outside the bus and harm you."

Scare tactics!

We had the police DIG's number. A journalist friend in Bhadrachalam had informed him about our trip. He had advised that we should call the DIG if there's any trouble. We called him. He spoke to the TI; problem solved. But we must no longer venture out in Konda. Especially into the forests.

"If we take you to the forests, the police will give us trouble," the local journalist said. They are not allowed to write freely about the situation in Bastar. They must simply write what the police say in their press meets. Those who attempt to write anything else can go straight to prison [Later we visited a journalist who was imprisoned for two years for writing against the government and the police; he refused to speak, gently avoiding us].

There are 28 Hindi newspapers in Chattisgarh. Most of them owned by contractors and businessmen, act as mouthpieces of the state government. No paper would criticise the state's operations against the Maoists. Local journalists recount that some newspapers which initially won applause by criticising the government, quickly changed sides, and that their owners made crores. It's also a difficult task to mould journalists in a district that has only 30% literacy.

Because it's the journalists and fact-finding missions who come from outside that tend to write openly about things, the police routinely obstruct their movements.

Not just journalists, human rights activists too have been silenced. Everyone talks in a circumspect manner, fearing as they do the notorious Jan Suraksha Kanoon. It was as if the very atmosphere was enveloped in fear and suspicion. On our very first day in Chhattisgarh, we had begun to feel oppressed by a sense of lost freedom.

****

On both sides of the road, is the forest, nothing else. The forest looked all shrivelled by the sweltering summer. And then in between, like bursts of laughter, fresh buds. I felt the forests had the smell of mahua. Of the strong liquor distilled from mahua flowers.

It was after a three-hour wait that we got a bus from Sukma. Sukma lies between Konda and Dantewada. It was the four o' clock bus that had just arrived, at seven o' clock. At least it has come, we're grateful. It would be close to ten in the night when we reach Dantewada. Pillaiji hadn't told us where he had arranged our accommodation. What if his mobile phone was switched off when we got there? The Konda police have managed to create a streak of fear in our minds.

The bus kept going through the forest. Kept crawling, would be more appropriate. The bus is full of adivasis. Baskets, hens, gunny bags, beautifully crafted bamboo water bottles in their hands. Perhaps they're carrying so many things because it was market day. It seemed the smell of mahua is coming not from the forest, but from their bamboo bottles. Once in a while, a basket would fall off. A halt to retrieve it, and then slowly, very slowly, dart ahead.

Outside, the moon is shining bright.

At one of the stops, the bus empties. Looking through the windows, I saw an entire village outside. Men, women, children, hens, baskets.... a bunch of dark figures in the moonlight.

The bus moved on.

It was ten thirty when we reached Dantewada. Pillaiji was waiting for us.

****

I never expected to see Gandhi in the Dantewada Collectorate. After all, it was the same government's police that had demolished the Gandhian Himanshu Kumar's Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. That's why perhaps, I was taken aback to see Gandhi's large portrait on the wall as we went up the steps. In the small chained platform nearby, a lamp was burning. On the right and left sides of the wall, and on the corridor walls on either side, are displayed Gandhi's sayings, and more portraits. Next to the portrait in front of us, displayed in large letters are Gandhi's words about his vision for India: "An India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. Where women enjoy the same rights as men. That is the India of my dreams."

Poor Gandhi!

At around ten in the morning, an announcement through the loudspeaker: "Prayer time. All staff members are requested to participate." Then Gandhi's favourite bhajan, 'Vaishnavajanatho...'. Followed by 'the tune of Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram...'.

After an hour's wait, the Collector arrived. A tall, slim, fair, young woman. Guarding her, a short gunman with a long gun.

A Gandhian maxim about how civil servants ought to be, mocked us from the wall. The Collector Reena Kangle spoke in measured tones, as if delivering answers by rote.

"The district administration had no option but to remove the adivasis from the jungle. They were living in great fear. Initially, we gave free rations to those in the camps. Now we give rice at Rs. 2 per kg. We run schools. We even provide employment as part of the employment guarantee scheme. Since the CRPF camps are near the Salwa Judum camps, the villagers feel safe there."

Even then some adivasis have started returning to the forests, the Collector couldn't help admitting. And that the police were stopping them, for the sake of their safety. She also said that one third of the villages in Dantewada district were not in the hands of the district administration. That is, they were completely under the control of the Maoists.

What she didn't say, however, was that such villages were ruled by the government of the Maoists.

****

The Salwa Judum's Cherpal base camp in Bijapur district is situated between two CRPF camps. By the time we reached there through the broken, bumpy jungle road, it was evening. Deputy Collector Alex Paul Menon had told us that every Salwa Judum camp was called a 'village', and that in each of these 'villages' there were elected village leaders. On our way to Cherpal, we saw on our left the small buildings of UNICEF and on our right, that of the voluntary association Doctors Without Borders.

We spoke to several people in the camp. Every one told us that they wished to go back to their villages. "It's true, we escaped fearing for our lives," said a young man who wanted to remain anonymous. "The Salwa Judum came and told us that the Maoists will attack us if we stay. Anyone would be terrified if they hear something like that. But, how long can we survive like this?"

Most of them are unemployed. Many travel to their villages from the camp during the day for work, and then return to the camp in the evening. They are scared to go into the forest to collect tendu leaves and other produces while still living in the camps. But of late, the Maoists have become more friendly towards those from the camps. In some families, the women and children have left for the forest. Some complained that the police were refusing to allow the men back into the forest. The young man who spoke to me said that in many homes, there was nothing to eat.

Cases of malaria, tuberculosis and epidemics have increased. We had to take in our vehicle a one-and-half-month-old baby covered with sores all over his body, and a four-year-old who was unconscious from high fever, to the voluntary organisation's hospital.

In the back seat of the vehicle, pressing them close to their bosom, their mothers wept all the way long. On the way back, we were totally silent.

****

"There's nothing going on here by the name of Green Hunt," said Dantewada SP Amaresh Mishra with absolute certainty. It was the day we returned from Dantewada that we went and met him at his office. He was young, and dressed in a full-sleeved shirt.

"Green Hunt is a creation of the media," he continued. “The term doesn't appear in any government or police document.” It's the same thing that Home Minister P. Chidamabaram has repeatedly said.

He might be telling the truth; there may not be a Green or a Black Hunt in any official document. But that the Centre and the state have commenced an intensive joint operation is a fact. The CRPF, the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Industrial Security Force, the Chhattisgarh Armed Police, are all present on the scene. The Special Police Officers of the Salwa Judum have been renamed 'Koya Commandos'.

The Maoists accuse that ever since joint operations began last August, the security forces have killed 115 adivasis in the Dandakaranya. The SP himself had made the security forces' position clear, "If we find inappropriate people in inappropriate places in the forests, we decide that they are Maoists, or Maoist supporters, or their messengers." He added that it was the first time that six states had come together for a combined operation against the Maoists.

He explained in detail how the Maoists had obstructed development in the area. "They destroy roads, schools, kill elected village leaders, scare off teachers and doctors, shut down anganvadis, and prevent the census from being conducted..." The forces present are enough to tackle the Naxalites, but for development, more forces will be required,” he says.

The picture of Manipur flickered in my mind. The paramilitary forces sent by the Centre, equipped with special powers to suppress the armed insurgency, have been stationed there for 60 years. It is the place with the world's highest density of armed forces. There is no sign of development anywhere there. And not just that, everyday, there are new guerrilla groups springing from the ground.

Wouldn’t the same happen here as well?

*****

Kirandul lies 30 kms away from Dantewada. The Bailadilla ranges of hills near Kirandul are rich in iron ore. With 14 immense deposits estimated at around 13,435 lakh tonnes, it's one of the world's largest iron ore deposits. Two large factories of the National Mineral Development Corporation, built partly with Japanese aid, have been functioning here. For forty years, they've been digging into the earth day and night. The ore is brought down from the mountains on a giant conveyor belt. It is then transported by rail to Visakhapatnam [There's also a passenger train between Kirandul and Vishakhapatnam. A jungle train.]. In the first 20 years, the entire quantity of the mined ore was exported to Japan [Now, only 15 percent of the ore is exported].

Not far from the NMDC factory, there is one owned by Essar. The iron dust obtained as a by-product in the ore's purification is sold to Essar. Essar transports it to Visakhapatnam through a 267 km long pipeline. Essar makes a profit of Rs 3 crores a day in this business. A few months ago, the Maoists damaged the pipeline. It seemed Essar had promised Rs 5 crores to the extremists, and finally they received only Rs 4 crores. The rest is said to have been pocketed by middlemen, the reason why the pipeline was damaged. There was no way we could verify if the story was true.

manipur
Essar

Essar and the state government have signed an MoU for a separate, Rs 7000 crore mining project in Bailadilla. But the project has been delayed due to protests by local villagers. Similarly, the Tatas have signed an MoU for a Rs 10,000 crore mining project in Lohandiguda near Jagdalpur. But that project too has met with strong resistance from the villagers.

In fact, the forest area designated as 'red corridor' by the police and the state is also the mineral corridor. The area is the richest in minerals in the whole country. Besides iron ore, there are large deposits of bauxite and dolomite in this region. Multi-nationals are queuing up to take over the area: it's a long list that includes Jindal, Tata, Essar, Posco and Vedanta [Home minister P. Chidambaram was a director board member of the Vedanta group. He stepped down from his position on the day he took charge as finance minister of the UPA government in 2004.].

Unofficial reports claim that the Chhattisgarh government has signed 105 MoUs in the last ten years, out of which 100 are related to mining. It seems there are 95 MoUs in Bailadilla alone. There are also allegations that many of the MoUs have been kept secret by the government.

In their planned invasion of this mineral rich area, the only hurdles before the corporate houses are the villagers and the Maoists. It is not just the presence of the armed Left-wing extremists that make the mineral corridor a red corridor. To suppress the resistance from the people, police often resort to firing on behalf of the MNCs. The blood of unarmed adivasis is profusely staining the corridor.

It's not a coincidence that the Salwa Judum was formed immediately after the government signed MoUs with the Tatas and the Essars. The first draft of a 2008 report by the Central Ministry for Rural Development's 'Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms', had clearly stated that these two corporations had encouraged and financially assisted the anti-Naxal militia in its early days. But the reference against the corporations were removed in the final version of the report. The final report only states that the state government had formed and supported the Salwa Judum, and the Centre provided it with arms.

The villages surrounding NMDC and Essar are still poor. Mining doesn't seem to have benefited them at all. Adivasis are just four percent in the officer class in NMDC; beyond that, the occasional wage labour routed through middlemen is all they get. The CRPF roams the villages in the name of giving protection to the villagers. They are outsiders who don't even understand the local language. It is difficult for them to tell 'friends' and 'enemies' apart.

Two years ago, faced with the prospect of starvation, four young men from Samalwar village entered the Essar compound to pick scrap iron. The CRPF fired at all four. Two fell dead instantly, and the other two, despite being shot in the legs, managed to escape. When irate villagers marched to the police station to identify the bodies next day, the CRPF tried to pacify the crowd and offered compensation for the wounded men. But when these men came to the police station they were booked on the charge of being Maoists. Both of them now languish in the Raipur Central Jail, having been denied bail.

A bunch of villagers gathered around us to describe this incident. But they told us that the men were shot when they went into the forest to bring back the cattle. Though desperately poor, they're still ashamed to admit that the men had gone there to steal. It was a local journalist who explained things for us.

*****

Let's call this thin, pale, young man with his closely cropped hair, Kaushik. He's a trooper of the CRPF's Cobra Force [He doesn't want his name and native place to be known]. It was by chance that I met Kaushik, who looked like a plus-two student.

"How's life here?" I enquired, trying to make small talk.

"We're scared to go outside. Because we have short hair, we're easily idenitified."

"How long will you be here?"

"God alone knows," he shrugged, smiling. "We want to get away from here in any way possible. Who knows what will happen when. I'll fall at someone's feet, and somehow try to change my posting."

Kaushik recounted the many frustrations of Green Hunt: "Most of us haven't got any training for fighting in the jungles. But 'they' know every inch of the forest. Because we don't know Gondi, we're unable to make friends with the villagers or to collect information. As for 'them', they are all from here, they don't have any trouble with language. There are no proper tents. Even in this heat, we stay under tin sheets. There's never enough water. Many camps are school hostels intended for adivasi children. Many catch malaria; it's a jungle after all. It's easy for our superiors to just hand out orders. Let them come and stay in the jungle for at least one day, then they'll know. Sometimes, I want to give up and just leave." Kaushik paused for a moment. "But one has to feed one's family. Both my children are in school."

"Are there incidents where innocent people are killed?"

"But never on purpose. They don't understand what we ask, and we don't understand what they say. If they run on seeing us, we'll shoot."

"What do you do?" he asked me back.

"I'm a journalist."

The brave soldier was on his feet in a flash. I got scared too seeing how afraid he was.

"My name isn't Kaushik."

"And my name isn't Suchitra," I laughed.

"Please don't write about the things I said..."

"But you didn't tell me anything that endangers national security, Kaushik," I tried to reassure him.

He left immediately, still tense.

****

History has shown us that the remedy for red terror isn't white terror, or any other kind of terror. From Telengana onwards, whenever extreme Left ideology was suppressed violently, it has resurrected itself. The Planning Commission had appointed a committee to study the challenges to development in areas where Left-wing extremism was strongest. In the preface to its 2008 report, the committee states thus:

"The Naxalite movement has to be recognised as a political movement with a strong base among the landless and poor peasantry and adivasis. Its emergence and growth need to be contextualised in the social conditions and experience of people who form a part of it. The huge gap between state policy and performance is a feature of these conditions. Though its professed long term ideology is capturing state power by force, in its day to day manifestation it is to be looked upon as basically a fight for social justice, equality, protection and local development."

But the Centre and the state governments have paid no attention to either the lessons of history or even their own reports. The Prime Minister repeatedly states that the Maoists are the "gravest threat to the nation's internal security." The Home Minister proclaims that operations would be intensified to crush the Maoists and ensure the nation's security. In this matter, the government and the Opposition speaks in one voice. The Prime Minister himself let it slip in parliament on 18th June 2008 that the growth of Left-wing extremism will affect the investment climate in the country. But the media has forgotten these words, and consequently refuse to examine the connections between corporate interests and the current conflict, happy instead to toe that other government line: that of 'national security.'

Whether the real purpose of the war is ensuring national security or furthering corporate interests, the ones who die are invariably the poor. When the government talks of intensifying the offensive, it means only that more security forces, more Maoists, more common people will get killed. In the past five years alone, some 4500 people have lost their lives. That's more than the number of Indian casualties in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. In Chhattisgarh alone, some 2500 have died. And that, is according to offcial statistics. What would the real picture be like? How is it that a war that makes the poor kill the poor has national security as its purpose? The Maoists had expressed their readiness for talks at one point, and so did the Home Minister. The sincerity behind the announcement was questionable, as the exchange that followed demonstrated. It quickly descended to the farcical level of a petty ego clash: "You call me". "No, you fax me."

All this chicken-or-egg game-playing when the lives and property of thousands are at stake. Civil society is still lobbying New Delhi to pursue that option. As yet, it's still deadlock, apparently.

*****

The bus is passing through the forest at top speed. We speak in hushed voices, not wanting anyone to overhear us. It wasn't like this when we started our journey. In a week's time, Chhattisgarh has influenced our behaviour!

Outside, the moon is shining in all its glory. In the silver light, the dark trees stand still with hands raised. As if in a prayer.

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